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North Coast marine sanctuaries formally expanded

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Two North Coast national marine sanctuaries have formally been expanded to include an additional 2,769 square miles of ocean between Bodega Head to just north of Point Arena, permanently protecting the important stretch of critical habitat from oil drilling.

The expansion — the culmination of decades of effort by regulators, legislators, area residents and environmentalists — was formalized Tuesday, said Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which administers the nation’s underwater sanctuaries.

“We are delighted with the outcome,” she said Wednesday.

The newly renamed Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary now extends from northwest of the San Francisco Bay to Point Arena. Together with the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, west of Bodega Head, they cover 4,581 square miles of ocean.

It’s the most significant expansion of ocean protection in California since 1992, when the 4,601-square-mile Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary — which stretches from Marin to Cambria — was established.

“This is a huge deal,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Washington D.C.-based Ocean Foundation who has been working on getting the expansion approved since the mid-1970s. The addition means that nearly 40 percent of the California Coast is protected from oil drilling. Fishing is allowed in sanctuaries.

But the work isn’t done. Even as they celebrate reaching one goal, North Coast environmental activists are looking toward the next.

“This is not over. It’s never going to be over,” said Mendocino Coast activist Rachel Binah, who’s been battling offshore oil drilling since the early 1980s, when a Louisiana corporation sought a permit to explore for oil off the Mendocino Coast.

Binah and others had sought to have the marine sanctuary extend all the way to the Oregon Coast. But federal officials wanted to deal with a smaller, more manageable area for now.

Binah said protecting the entire coast is crucial to ensuring the sanctuaries are safe from oil spills that occur in unprotected neighboring waters. An oil spill off the rugged northern Mendocino Coast would be difficult to control and likely would spread to the sanctuary, she said, noting the currents go south.

“What’s the point of having a marine sanctuary if the area around it becomes a danger for marine life?” Binah said.

The southern Mendocino Coast was included in the sanctuary boundaries largely to protect its unusually high nutrient production. One of the world’s strongest upwelling zones — which carries nutrients to the surface, generating food for a variety of organisms — originates off the coast near Point Arena. The food it generates helps sustain wildlife hundreds of miles to the south.

“This is one of the top five ocean upwelling systems on earth,” Charter said.

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors also supports a northern expansion of the federally protected sanctuary, Supervisor Dan Hamburg said.

Meanwhile, the area’s state representatives are seeking enhanced state protections, including a bill sponsored by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, that would close loopholes that potentially could allow oil drilling off the North Coast. That measure is supported by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg.

While Binah and others want additional protections for the coast, they also are thrilled with the current expansion.

“I’m very excited about this marine sanctuary expansion,” she said.

A celebration of the sanctuary designation will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 28 at the Gualala Arts Center in Gualala. Schramm said she expects the turnout to include many of the officials and activists who pushed for the change over the years. The event is free and will include entertainment and refreshments, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave an inaccurate description of the link between the two newly expanded marine sanctuaries off the Sonoma and Mendocino coast. They have not been merged.

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